Vinyl is a beautiful, if inherently flawed medium. Who thought that it was a great idea to have a literal industrial diamond scraping plastic to recreate sound? We have lasers, touch screens, etc, but we still cling to a medium created in 1886.

Why? Without getting into a debate about sonics, for the DJ it is the most organic and utterly irreplaceable control medium. The feeling of being able to “grab” your sound, pulling back against a track that is fighting to move forward and manipulating it into something entirely new, nothing else can quite replace it… although many attempts have been made.

This NAMM had three different approaches as to how to modernize the art, embracing the lineage while moving toward the future. This is not a review of any of them, as two of them are not fully baked/released (so speaking about performance would be unfair), and one has not been in my hands long enough to judge beyond initial (positive) findings. It’s more assorted musings to hopefully start a conversation.

NAMM 2018 Ortofon Phase Rane DJ (7)

Phase

Phase is interesting in that it is not a new idea, but the execution is such that it fixes many of the issues with units that came before. Obviously the Tascam TT-M1 comes to mind, but even the legendary RZA “DVS” had a play on this idea (albeit with a mechanical “plunger” that sat on the label). The beauty of this idea is that it allows one to retrofit their existing turntable. Instead of replacing the most important part of your rig, you get to keep the part that you hopefully like the most, while removing the most accident-prone piece of the system. The open nature of it as well lets you use whatever software you like, making for what is hopefully a seamless transition into the future.

The idea of using your own turntable for the best part (the platter) only is initially novel. As well, given the shoddy shape of many turntables at live venues, having something that takes out the main point of failure is a great concept in itself. There are some pieces that I have questions about however. This isn’t me being negative, but just a skeptic (I say realist — Ed) in general.

1. Will you be able to purchase multiple transmitter units to work with your phase receiver?
One thing that scares the hell out of me is the idea that I forgot to charge my transmitter up, and if I set up my “phasebox3000™” with transmitters that are near death, the idea of unplugging so I can plug in my turntable leads and throw in some timecode vinyl is a nightmare scenario. If multiple transmitters were in my bag, this would be a non-issue, but that also adds to cost.

2. If timecode changes, what then?
A few years back, Traktor switched timecode, and we all had to buy the new hotness. It was an improvement, but it still irritated a lot of DJ’s with spare Traktor vinyl. While Serato’s vinyl is relatively solid, and has a small iteration (louder pressings to help out with degradation in a club), it is also rather low resolution compared to the completion. If Serato were knocked off the dominant position, could you add the new timecode to your “phasebox3000™”?

3. Will we have a version that sends MIDI?
Please, roll with me here. Given how unique vinyl is as a medium, wouldn’t it be interesting to add a second set of messages? Wouldn’t it be awesome to have timecode (with needle) and phase TOGETHER to do something unique with FX, pitch bends/FX changes that follow your scratching, etc? I know that this is only version one, but this strikes me as a “version 3 for me” kind of product.

4. As turntables leave clubs, what then?
Thinking of the venues my friends spin at, maybe 2 in 10 have turntables still in the booth. This is a lifeline for clubs to keep their turntables, around long after the wires in the tonearm go to hell, but it still requires the venue having turntables in the first place. Are you going to bring your own turntables? For that matter, will they even let you?

5. Needle dropping?
Without a tonearm or touch strip, you are limited in your ability to do needle drop cueing. How much of an issue will this be? I think I will miss it, but I also know how quickly I’ve adapted to losing pieces in my rig that I’ve considered necessary for years.

Again, its one of the coolest ideas in years, but ideas vs adoption are two different things. I want this to be a huge success, if only because I want to see what the future holds.

NAMM 2018 Ortofon Phase Rane DJ (1)

Rane TWELVE

Every few years, a product comes along that feels like both a new concept as well as an extreme nostalgia trip. inMusic (though Numark) basically created the concept of a record as a jogwheel. The CDX, the HDX, V7, NS7… (you forgot the very rare X2 — Ed). I can go on for a while, but point is that they have OWNED this space. While Denon made some attempts as well (predating Numark by a year or so), the strongest showings always came out of the inMusic umbrella. That said, adoption has always been VERY hit or miss.

(Just inserting this in here — while Rane has been beavering away and marketing the tonearmless TWELVE, they also asked portablist modder in chief Jesse Dean to make an add-on tonearm. Oh the irony — Ed)

Arguably the two most successful products were the NS7-series and the CDX, which filled two very solid niche’s — mobiles who wanted to have a (slightly) more portable version of their home turntables, and CD jocks who wanted the best of vinyl while using their common at the time CD collection. Products like the HDX and V7 had adoption issues out of the gate, but I can’t point to any one thing that made them take off less than the others. I’m waiting to see what happens with the TWELVE — it is, by far, the best iteration of the idea so far. I do have some questions though:

1. Size?
When you have clubs that say that DJ’s can’t bring in controllers, or for that matter a night where you have multiple DJ’s performing through the night, what is to ensure that you will be able to bring in your beasts? They take the same space as a turntable, which means that you would also need to set them up where a turntable goes. If a club has turntables, how will they feel about swapping these in and out to make your set go well? Plugging in your own DVS box is already a pain in the butt, so how will a tonearm-less turntable go?

2. Serato?
Full stop, I am NOT not saying that Serato DJ  isn’t good. It’s the top dog adoption wise, and it’s a solid piece of software. However, rekordbox has shown us that your spot is dependent on so much more than just what is most popular for the masses. I’ve known plenty of DJ’s who use Serato at home, only to use rekordbox in the club. Hell, I use Traktor at home but rekordbox when I spin out, and that is after using Serato in place of rekordbox for years. What works at home is not always what works in the club, and the TWELVE assumes that you will ONLY be using Serato DJ. Which brings me to…

3. Audio Outputs?
I get why it doesn’t have an audio interface — Rane has the new hotness mixer. That said, Denon was the first company to create a device that spit out timecode for multiple pieces of software. What if I wanted to use my TWELVE with Traktor, etc? You could map it, but imagine if it had RCA outs and a bit of memory that could hold multiple timecode files. Suddenly it’s the device that everyone wants for their choice of software. I’m not saying that they are wrong, but it does limit choice a bit.

4. Build quality as a negative?
I love gear that is built well. I also have a very bad back, and can’t lift my turntables to gigs anymore. I’m not the only one. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I wish there was a bit less metal and a bit more plastic used.

The TWELVE is a product that we have been screaming for years about, but those screams have been answered multiple times, with varying degrees of success. Time will tell if this is the final answer, but without seeing sales velocity it remains a question for the time being. To all the DJs who have been screaming about wanting exactly this product for years, if you want more products like this in the future the power is in your hands — and wallets.

NAMM 2018 Ortofon Phase Rane DJ (13)

Ortofon’s Louis Dorio with the author.

Ortofon Concorde MKII

I’m including these in the piece because it is not trying to change the turntable, but make it better. Ortofon had a great T-shirt this year, saying “Vinyl is the new digital”, and that informs their design choices this time around, engineering for the modern DJ. The fact is that DJ needles have always been, at best, choices offered that were originally made for radio, club, home hi-fi etc, but not made for scratching or modern club sound systems.

The suspension and output have been tweaked to make them better suited for changing demands, but it is still legacy engineering. It’s like putting an electric motor into a 1968 Chevy Nova SS-sure, it goes fast and is pretty darn cool to drive, but you are still dealing with today’s tech strapped into a 48-year-old design, flaws and all. For the new series, save for the basic look, these are actually engineered for modern DJs. By starting from scratch internally, they could think about how to make something that was rugged and skip-proof (the two often don’t go hand in hand, oddly enough), and could make a platform that sonically matches what modern DJs want. The questions that I have are:

1. Adoption?
When you have DJ’s who have used Shure needles for years, those models being made originally for Jukeboxes and Radio (and themselves also being considered low-end needles until DJ’s adopted them), and other DJs who have used Ortofon V1 needles for their entire career, how easy will it be to get people to switch? I’m going to because its cool to me that there is actually some new thought being put into an ancient dark art like needle making, but will other DJs agree? Will they stick with their V1s as Styli will be available for many years to come?

2. OM?
DJ’s are creatures of habit, and one of those habits are using headshells. With the new series, they have gotten rid of the OM line-this is headshell mount or bust. How are DJ’s going to feel?

3. Messaging?
I’m lucky — I sat down for an extended period with people from Ortofon US, as well as from the head office in Denmark. Can I convey the info that I heard in a tagline? It’s also somewhat like trying to explain why esoteric organic ingredients are better and more expensive… some people still want Velveta cheese. How do you get people to care when so much of the vinyl they play just comes with a 1-2k tone and no music?

4. Colors?
Vapid, I know. Speaking to a few folks, I found that the color scheme was a bit polarizing. I love the look, as they remind me of some Nike Dunks. Others seemed to gravitate to the more muted tones of some of the current models. Will there be other colors available? If so, will it cause confusion, as they just made their lineup the cleanest it has been in years?

I’m a creature of habit, so I’m oddly the most excited about what is the most nostalgic of the releases spoken about here. I’m curious as to how nostalgic the rest of the market is though.

NAMM 2018 Ortofon Phase Rane DJ (6)

Conclusions

This year is going to be interesting, as we have three different views of how the past informs the future of an art form. I want them all to be successful, as this can only bring good to the industry. I fear though that it may be a Highlander-style situation. Can there only be one? What of these looks like the future to you?

GALLERY